HEROS is a working group of students, parents, teachers, and neighbors who self-organized in early 2018. Our aim (and our name) is Healing Everyday Racism in Our Schools (HEROS). We believe that such healing is possible if we join together, listen to one another, and take bold, courageous action that centers the lives of those who experience racism on a daily basis.
Every student should feel safe, seen, and nurtured in their school environment. When racist acts are committed by students against their classmates, our most basic notions of safety, respect, and trust are violated. Both the immediate manifestations and the long-term incubators of racism must be addressed and remedied if our students are to have a future better than our past.
To read our 2018 Letter to the New Trier High School Board of Education, please click here.
Racism in North Shore Schools
Racism is an historical process that developed over centuries. It can not be dismantled overnight. The structural and institutional power of racism goes well beyond any individual or group. Personal prejudice or ‘race relations’ are largely reflections of an American social context rooted in settler colonialism, slavery, and an enduring legacy of racial inequality. Students learn to reinforce this system of oppression as a part of a ‘hidden curriculum’ taught to them through normalized observable patterns they discern all around them.
While racism has been conceptualized and defined in different ways by different fields, Dr. Nicki Lisa Cole, offers a useful working definition for racism as the combination of:
- Practices, beliefs, and social relations that create power and privilege for some, and discrimination and oppression for others
- Multigenerational pain, systemic injustice, and an unequal distribution of resources, rights, and privileges
- Stereotypes, derogatory language, cultural ignorance/insensitivity, and implicit bias
In our conversations with students in the North Shore we found evidence of all of the these elements of racism. Far from invisible, subconscious, or subtle, students were acutely aware of the overt, everyday racism around them and felt largely alienated from the educational institutions that they believed we are doing little to address it. Below is a tiny sampling of the truly heartbreaking reports we uncovered in just a few open meetings:
- Black students at New Trier and their middle-school counterparts all recounted the casual and almost daily use of the n-word among their peers on and off campus, both verbally and in print.
- Black students at NewTrier reported being called the n-wordby their white NewTrier classmates at a football game and told to sit with the other (more culturally diverse) rival team. The implication was clear—Black students were not welcome and did not ‘belong’ at New Trier .
- Black students report that at least one teacher at New Trier made an open mockery of MLK Day during class while expressing disgust with being asked to address the topic.
- Black students also saw a teacher suppressing discussions of racial justice by intentionally throwing away copies of the school newspaper in front of the class because the paper quoted a black student addressing racism at New Trier.
- A parent of a black student reported that during a lesson about ableism a teacher at Evanston High School asked their black student: “How would you like it if I called you a n*?”
- A Mexican American student reported being directlyharassed with racist slurs at an area middle school due to his Mexican ancestry.
- Jewish students and their allies described multiple cases of anti-Semitic jokes,several of which directly targeted Jewish students themselves.
- In addition, a similarly omnipresent parade of homophobic and sexist remarks further reflected an openly hostile environment for female and LGBTQ students of color.
In addition to our findings, a number of publicly documented reports also appear relevant:
- In 2015, when two New Trier students posted a racist comment on Facebook, school administrators claimed that this was an “isolated incident.” The series of events that have taken place since 2015 demand that we reconsider this hypothesis.
- The lack of racial diversity is a well-known reality at New Trier and vast disparities in student outcomes are reported by race at other schools in the North Shore.
- Nationwide, students of Middle-Eastern, Asian, and South Asian heritage also report abusive language, e.g. being called a “terrorist.” According to The Guardian, 55% of Muslim-American students reported bullying and discrimination, by other students and staff.
- Ignorance and omission of Native American history and culture is prevalent in American schools and mainstream society. Students and teachers must be aware of the vast indigenous history of Chicagoland.
In addressing these concerns, a few general principles seem appropriate:
- First, we must support and care for the youth who have experienced such abuse, providing forums for their voices to be heard, and processes of healing and restorative justice can begin.
- Second, we must address and awaken the students and teachers who perpetrate these acts. We must help them understand that such behavior is not a joke. We must enable students, faculty, and staff to see and understand the systemic nature of racism – as well as the human face and harmful effects of such thoughts and actions.
- Third, we must implement systemic changes in our curricula, learning environments, hiring and retention practices, student recruitment, and school culture, to create a deeply diverse, equitable, and empowering experience for all students and staff.
Check out our recommendation page here.